Terror on the Chesapeake-1813

Rear Admiral Cockburn

Rear Admiral Cockburn

The War of 1812 did not start in earnest for those on Chesapeake Bay until 1813. Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn was given the task: ruin coastal trade, destroy supplies of grain and livestock, and terrorize the population in general. In late April he reached Kent County, Maryland. His force consisted of one 74 (a gun ship), three frigates, two brigs, two schooners, and a number of tenders and barges. The British raided Howell Point and bombarded the land throwing shot as far as a mile from shore. At one farm they robbed a smokehouse, henhouse and sheep pen, and killed cattle. The militia arrived in time to prevent the enemy from carrying off the cattle and to fire at the retreating boats.

The British continued up the bay, lsying waste by plundering Frenchtown, and raiding and burning Havre de Grace.

Cockburn next turned to Georgetown, but he was frustrated by the intricacy of the Sassafrass River. He kidnapped a local resident to act as his pilot and sent word that if the residents didn’t resist, Georgetown would be spared and provisions they took paid for. However the militia, 400 strong, opened fire. When the British advanced, the militia abandoned the fight and melted away. The British torched thirteen dwellings and outbuildings, cobbler’s shop, tavern, a granary and storehouse. However, some homes were saved. (Local legend has it that the British spared several homes due to the actions of  Miss Kitty Knight, a local lady of esteem, who stood up to the British when they were about to burn the home of one of her elderly neighbors. The Kitty Knight house still stands.)

Kitty Knight House today

Kitty Knight House today

As Cockburn and his forces returned to the Chesapeake the news of burning and looting had its effects. Resistance had died. The Brits paid for supplies and returned the pilot to his home. However, they came back in August with a different intent.

This is another blog of my “History of The War of 1812 on Chesapeake Bay” series. Since my next mystery will take place during a reenactment of that war, I’ve discovered many interesting facts I like to share, also, a few facts I thought I knew that weren’t exactly true.

 

 

War of 1812 in Havre de Grace

Havre de Grace in 1813

Havre de Grace in 1813

This coming summer my new mystery, Forgotten Body, will be released. Since it centers around a reenactment of the War of 1812, I am sharing some of my research. What did the area look like? This diorama made to represent Havre de Grace at the time shows a sparsely settled area.

Havre de Grace sits on the shore of the Susquehanna River in Maryland. On May 2, 1813, the British under Admiral Cockburn attacked and burned most of the houses in the town. Several reports from that time tell the story. The Admiral planned to bypass Havre de Grace until he saw an American flag flying and someone shot cannon fire. That was probably John O’Neill. He stood his ground, firing until the cannon backfired on him, forcing him to leave. However, he did join others with their muskets.

O'Neill At The Cannon

O’Neill At The Cannon

The 40 local militia, mostly older men, wisely retreated in the face of an overwhelming force after one was killed. John O’Neill was captured. He was to be executed the next day, however his 15-year-old daughter rowed out the admiral’s vessel to plead for her father’s life. Since she had the papers that proved he was a military officer and not a civilian, he was released. The surviving articles hint that her comely ways and bravery affected the admiral. In any event, he gave her his gold-mounted tortoiseshell snuff box. (Exactly what any teenager would love to have.)

Other stories may not have been authenticated. One I heard was that the admiral declined to burn the home of a widow since she had no husband fighting against Mother England. (I must admit, that is the story I used in my upcoming mystery.)

Question: When the entire story is a fabrication, must the history be absolutely authentic?

My answer: Sometimes. If the history is presented as authentic—you bet your life. I’ll make it as authentic as I can. If the history is admittedly augmented—hey the writer/history doesn’t tell everything. And, if the history is presented as a fabrication—go for it! (I understand that was the thinking behind Unicorn Westerns.)

What is your answer?